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Support Wildlife & Your Gardens with Your Leaves

It’s that time of year – the leaves are falling, and some are not where you would like them to be. Many homeowners spend countless hours raking and blowing leaves and even paying to have them hauled off. Not to say that you should leave all the leaves where they fall. Certainly, leaves need to be removed from steps and driveways and any areas where they could create a safety hazard, but many leaves can be left in the more natural areas of your yard to provide protection and overwintering habitat for many non-migrating insects, birds and other wildlife. If your yard and garden area are too tidy, you are not providing this essential habitat for pollinators and those critters that provide pest control and healthy soils. We recommend leaving as many as you can for the sake of the wildlife that depends on them - this will also benefit your yard in the long run!

So what about the leaves you do need to remove/want to tidy?

One option is to add raked leaves to gardens and around plants you know to be extra cold sensitive for more winter insulation. This is very effective when overwintering potted plants - cluster pots together for increased warmth and humidity, and then pile leaves on and around them (adding a bit of mesh is helpful so they don’t blow away). You may lose a few critters in moving the leaves, but this is still a good way to maintain most of the environmental benefit while also gaining protection for your plants.

If you still have an excess of leaves, then we encourage you to at least use them as a free mulch/fertilizer! Leaves that fall onto lawn areas can be chopped up during the last fall mowing, and if not too thick, left to provide a great fertilizer for your lawn. You can also chop leaves with the mower or a leaf shredder and compost them for future mulch/food for your gardens. After chopping or shredding, it's best to pile them and allow them to decompose until early spring. At that point you can spread them 2”-3” thick over your gardens, working some of them into the soil. Just be careful to keep the leaf mulch away from the crown of your plants at least an inch or two, and six to twelve inches away from shrub and tree trunks. This allows roots to breathe and discourages wood-boring insects, chewing rodents and decay.

Here are some of the many benefits of leaf mulch:

  • Controls weeds

  • Adds organic matter

  • Protects against soil compaction

  • Retains soil moisture

  • Breaks down and improves soil

  • Looks more natural than commercial mulches

  • Keeps soil cool in the heat of summer

  • Insulates plant roots from the cold in winter

  • Feeds earthworms and beneficial microbes

  • Turns into leaf mold in time (1-3 years) which is high in calcium and magnesium.

Keep in mind that leaf mulch will add to the acidity of your soil, so test in the spring and adjust the pH if necessary. If combining shredded leaves with grass clippings, aim for a ratio of 5:1 leaves to grass. Also, avoid walnut and eucalyptus leaves since they will inhibit plant growth unless totally composted. When adding shredded leaves directly to the soil, add some slow-release nitrogen first to help decomposition and ensure that soil microbes don’t deplete the available nitrogen.

An interesting experiment was conducted by a farmer who was growing two varieties of basil in a

greenhouse environment. He compared the crop performance of lemon and Italian basil grown using leaf matter only, versus leaf matter plus organic chemical fertilizer or leaf matter plus duck manure. The results were very surprising and were judged by the weight of basil produced in each of the three areas. The largest amount of Italian basil was produced by the combination of leaf matter plus organic fertilizer (the leaf matter only crop was a very close second), while the largest amount of lemon basil was harvested from the crop fertilized only with leaf matter. This farm was able to prove that their years of tilling huge quantities of leaf matter into their fields was indeed beneficial and more cost effective than chemical fertilizers. With the current shortage and increased cost of fertilizer, this can be a wise choice for all gardeners who have access to an abundance of leaves and space to compost them!

In addition to using shredded leaf mulch directly in your gardens, you can add shredded leaves to your average compost pile to prevent it from getting compacted and soggy. It will balance out the food scraps and other high nitrogen material. Keep the compost pile in only partial sunlight so it won’t dry out and slow down decomposition.

There is a balance – we can all contribute to providing wildlife habitat while still enriching our own

gardens, and keeping select areas of our yards and gardens aesthetically pleasing at the same time. Hopefully, we can all work toward finding that balance!

This link of the conversation between God and St. Frances (first shared with us by our friend Tom Tribble, past president of the Blue Ridge Audubon at his presentation here on Bird Friendly Gardening) touches on this subject in a very humorous way!

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